What Are War Crimes, and How Are They Prosecuted?

World leaders have vowed to hold President Vladimir V. Putin accountable for war crimes as evidence mounts that Russian forces killed civilians in Ukraine.

The Kremlin has denied the allegations, saying recent footage was staged from the kyiv suburb of Bucha, which was liberated from Russian control last week. But President Biden has called him a war criminal. And President Volodymyr Zelensky has said that Putin is responsible for the genocide.

If previous war crimes prosecutions are any indication, the process is arduous and exhaustive, involving years of investigations and litigation that are only decided decades after the conflict ends.

This is what you need to know:

A war crime is an act committed during an armed conflict that violates international humanitarian law designed to protect civilians. The rules of war are codified in various treaties, including the 1949 Geneva Convention and the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions.

The main entity that can hold people accountable for war crimes is the International Criminal Court. It was established in 1988 through a treaty known as the Rome Statute that lists actions that can be prosecuted as war crimes, including intentional killings, torture, and intentional attacks on civilians. Some cases have been brought before special courts created by the United Nations.

Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said the bodies of 410 people, apparently all civilians, had been recovered in the kyiv region. Human Rights Watch said it had documented cases of rapes, executions, and looting of civilian property.

The New York Times has reported on indiscriminate killings, torture, and other violence against civilians. The ICC had already launched a criminal investigation into possible war crimes in early March.

“What they did in Bucha, or the bombing of a hospital or a school, are prima facie war crimes,” said Kwon O-Gon, an international law expert who served as a judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. . .

War crimes are investigated like any criminal activity, through interviewing witnesses, reviewing photos or videos, and collecting forensic evidence, including ballistic analysis, autopsies, or DNA evidence. Prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the people knowingly committed the crimes.

More difficult to prove is how much a head of state knew or was directly responsible for what happened under his command.

The ICC does not have its own police or military force. The court relies on states to turn their own citizens over to the court for prosecution. That is unlikely to happen with Russia’s high-level officials, let alone Putin.

Mr. Kwon noted that there are no statutes of limitations for war crimes. Evidence or inside information could surface years later, and Putin or others could be handed over to court to finally be held accountable.

“Even if it takes 10 or 20 years, even if it is after Putin is removed from power, he could be brought to the bench,” Kwon said.

Slobodan Milosevic, known as the “Butcher of the Balkans”, was the first former head of state to stand trial for such crimes in 2002. He died in his cell in The Hague as his four-year trial drew to a close, before a to a verdict.

Charles G. Taylor, former president of Liberia, was sentenced to 50 years in 2012 for atrocities committed in Sierra Leone during the civil war of the 1990s. Laurent Gbagbo, former president of Côte d’Ivoire, was acquitted of crimes against humanity and other charges related to the violence that followed the country’s presidential elections in 2010.

The ICC issued an arrest warrant for Libyan leader Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011 charging him with crimes against humanity, but he was killed in October before trial.

The court is seeking former President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan on charges of genocide and war crimes in the Darfur region, but Sudan’s transitional government has not handed him over.

anushka patil contributed report.

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